Brain & Health
Meditation and the mind-brain connection
Written by Sadhna Sahani
Self-awareness, mindfulness and emotional stability are basic necessities to lead a good quality life. Amidst the many distractions and modern world pressures, we lose touch with our emotions and feelings which directly or indirectly impacts the quality of our lives. It is well known that meditation improves mental clarity, reduces anxiety and lowers stress levels. Meditation and controlled breathing help us to quiet our minds and connect us with our inner-self and help foster wisdom and awareness. They help us in becoming aware of what is happening within us. But how does meditation benefit the brain?
Studies have shown that practice of mindfulness brings about positive physiological changes that make the connection between meditation and the brain even more profound. Multiple scientific studies have demonstrated that self-help techniques like meditation, breathing and other mindfulness interventions have shown reduction of depressive symptoms by modifying the cognitive processes (Ramel W. et al., 2004). Mindfulness-based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) derived from ancient yogic philosophies have gained popularity and gotten integrated into conventional psychotherapies for treating anxiety and depression (Edenfield et al., 2012). People meditate for multiple reasons, some do it to be calm, while others want to gain understanding on how the mind functions and how it impacts our brain.
The word Meditation itself is derived from two Latin words: “meditari” – to think, to dwell upon, or to exercise the mind, and “mederi” – to heal. The Sanskrit derivation is “medha,” which means “wisdom” (Edenfield et al., 2012). Therefore, meditation can be defined as a practice for one’s mind and body, intended to encourage a heightened state of awareness and focused attention. Since ages, it has been traditionally practiced in various cultures e.g., Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity etc. While meditation is often used for religious purposes, many people practice it independent of any religious or spiritual beliefs or practices. It has been used for increasing calmness and physical relaxation, improving psychological balance, coping with illness, and enhancing overall health and well-being.
Recently, a team of researchers in the University of British Columbia have shown from meta-analysis data that brains of meditators and non-meditators are structurally different. After analyzing the neuroimaging data of around 300 meditation practitioners, they concluded that there are consistent alterations in the brain areas involved in awareness (Frontopolar cortex), exteroceptive and interoceptive body awareness (sensory cortices and insula) and memory consolidation and reconsolidation (hippocampus) which can be connected with enhanced focus, better stress management and attentiveness. Another study has shown that the brains of regular meditators were also found to have increased grey matter volume and may have a neuroprotective effect and reduction of the cognitive decline associated with normal aging (Pagnoni and Cekic, 2007). An entire group in Harvard University is probing the effect of mindfulness meditation on depression, using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to take before and after images of the brains of depressed patients who’ve learned to meditate. The work seeks to understand the internal brain processes affected by mindfulness meditation training in this population. Desbordes and colleagues have shown in 2012 that regular practice of meditation shrinks the size of the amygdala (brain region involved in processing negative emotions, anxiety and sadness) which suggests that continual training may affect emotional processing in everyday life. Regular meditators noticed an increase in feelings of kindness and empathy. This—in a nutshell—is how meditation changes your brain and consequently your way of life.
Setting aside the scientifically proven benefits, the daily practice of meditation energizes me amidst the rush and fuss of life. I don’t see meditation as something that "needs to be" accommodated in my daily schedule, it comes rather effortlessly to me. Just as we take care of our dental hygiene, meditation is important of our mental hygiene. It is the time for me to connect to my inner self and explore spiritual dimensions. The 3 basic principles I follow during meditating are - “I do nothing”, “I want nothing”, and “I am nothing”.
Start with sparing 15-20 minutes a day, that is all you need. Especially now, meditation can help people struggling with depression and/or anxiety about the pandemic.
Written by Sadhna Sahani; Edited by Radhika Menon. Featured Image: NGC/Design.